Me at ASCDReflecting on a busy weekend of conversation and learning at this year’s annual ASCD conference in Los Angeles, a few bright spots stand out for me. I attended ASCD two years ago in Philadelphia and I couldn’t help but notice that while conversations haven’t necessarily shifted too much (school leadership, school transformations, teaching strategies, assessment, Common Core) I found that more and more sessions addressed digital technologies, connected learning and inquiry-based learning. I also got a sense that many attendees craved interactivity within their sessions and were not too shy to engage with complete strangers within their sessions. These are the bright spots that make this year’s conference feel different than the last one I attended.

Social Media and Connected Learning

Saved by TwitterOn Saturday morning, during the “Saved by Twitter” session, I watched complete strangers huddle in groups to discuss social media, their use of Twitter, the challenges involved in using social media and I witnessed a few people send their first tweet or use a hashtag for the first time. This is a huge shift from two years ago when there were very few people tweeting at the conference and Twitter wasn’t widely considered a tool for schools and teachers (and students). Now, it seems, many educators and school leaders realize that they have no choice but to get on board with social media, and they are exploring the tool. Some of the session attendees pondered questions such as, “Should I have two accounts, one personal and one for school?” or, especially if they’d been on Twitter for a few months, “What do I have to add to the conversation? I haven’t really had anything profound to share.” Mixed in were questions about chats, various symbols they saw, what it means to follow someone, what it means to “retweet” someone and others. I’m not sure how many people from that session continued to tweet over the course of the conference, but the eagerness to learn was palpable.
In addition, there were more sessions this year focused around topics like integrating technology, digital citizenship, mobile learners, technology and critical thinking and others. As a frequent attendee of the annual ISTE conference, and a Technology teacher, I found the conference in Philadelphia lacking many sessions dedicated to technology in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend one of the technology sessions this year due to schedule conflicts, but just the amount of sessions discussing technology in the classroom gave me hope.

Student-Centered, Project Based Learning

Another bright spot was the increased number of sessions referring to project or problem-based learning. More and more conversations that I heard while sitting on a couch in the networking lounge or walking between sessions seemed more focused on student-centered learning and while many still touted the Common Core, and while I could not visit every session to see if what was being discussed was truly PBL, this shift gives me hope that more schools are moving toward student-centered classrooms.
I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation in the press room with some of the staff from Washington Montessori School, this year’s winner of the Vision in Action Award. The staff described the culture shift for staff, students and families when the school, which had been labeled as a “Priority School” with only 50% of its students reading at grade level, transitioned into a magnet Montessori school. They described the independence they foster in their Pre-K through 5th grade students, 78% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch. The work they have done to develop a truly inquiry-based environment is inspiring. The fact that this kind of work is being done to turn schools around rather than some of the models I currently see in Philadelphia gives me hope.
I also spoke with a teacher who works in an urban district outside of Chicago who described the positive changes her school has gone through, the focus they have been putting on supporting kids and families, the vision and dedication that new leadership has brought to the school and the way that staff have stepped up to get the necessary hard work done to turn the school around.
These are the stories that we need to hear, and the fact that people are telling these stories and that ASCD was able to shine a light on the transformation of Washington Montessori also gives me hope.

Go Ahead, Talk to Each Other

Edcamp at ASCDThe final bright spot that really stood out for me this year was the increased amount of engagement between session attendees in sessions. It always pains me that almost all large conferences that I have attended (not just ASCD) set the rooms up like a classroom from the 19th Century with a sea of chairs all hooked together and facing front. I had a conversation with some Emerging Leader colleagues where we reflected on the fact that the best practices that we tout for children we rarely provide for teachers. I attended the Edcamp session and watched as attendees unhooked chairs and created discussion circles and then proceeded to generate discussion topics and hold discussions around topics of their choice. After the attendees regrouped, I could hear people telling their colleagues about the discussion they had just had. There was an energy in the room. It was awesome.
I also sat in on the “What Keeps You Up At Night” panel, and while about half of the time was spent like a traditional panel with a moderator, the attendees were given cards on which to write a question for the panel and the second half of the session was focused on the questions of the people in the room. This gave the session attendees a chance to interact both with the panel and with each other.
ASCD also had a new space this year called the #ASCDEdSpace. This was a space for informal conversation around topics chosen by attendees. This shows a huge shift in how large organizations like ASCD think about engaging their attendees and I think it is a step in the right direction. While this year’s space may not have been totally successful, I believe that were the space moved to the networking lounge rather than a back hallway, there would be a large number of people engaged in conversation about sessions, the keynote speakers and their own experiences. Myself and two other emerging leaders, Bethany Bernasconi and Dawn Chan decided to move our #ASCDEdSpace session to the networking lounge. We plopped ourselves down with complete strangers and struck up a conversation. No one balked at talking to a stranger, and the space was perfect for debriefing the day. If we had not moved to the lounge, I would not have met Tiffany, the teacher from the urban district outside of Chicago that I mentioned above.
I also overheard conversations at social events and while traversing the conference center that hinted at a desire for more interactivity in sessions. “I hate when they just stand up there and talk at you,” I overheard one attendee say. These experiences give me hope that professional development for teachers can begin to mirror the best practices that we use to design meaningful learning experiences for our students.
I’m sure that we will see the landscape shift even more as schools begin to move away from focusing on The Test as the sole assessment, as more and more schools adopt digital learning tools and as more and more school leaders realize the potential of their staff to learn together and from each other.
Despite what many would say about “education these days,” the bright spots I saw this weekend make me believe that that there is hope and that it will take all of us making big strides forward to enact the changes that will make schools more student-centered and focused on the learning process, not just the outcome.
 
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a report card conference with one of my advisees discussing his classes, his school work and some struggles he’d been having. At one point he said, “I think I’m taking advantage of the freedom I have.” It was a powerful statement and a one that really stuck with me.
We give our students at SLA Beeber a lot of freedoms. They are allowed to have cell phones in school, they have their own  laptop that they take home, along with an email account, and they are allowed to use Google Chat, Hangouts and Google+ to communicate with their peers (and teachers). They don’t have a strict dress code to follow and there are no metal detectors at the entrance of the school. They are also assigned long term projects that tie into their personal interests & incorporate choice rather than end of unit tests and lunch is an hour long to accommodate the amount of time they may need to work on projects or meet with teachers.
This may sound like a dream to many high school students, but it is very hard to navigate for a young person. With no one breathing down your neck telling you what to wear, when your cell phone could be confiscated if seen, when your social interactions with peers are controlled by adults, when you only have one way to show what you have learned, and when you are forced to gobble down lunch in 20 minutes, you don’t have much to navigate.
Having freedom is hard.
Decisions must be made, new habits must be formed and, often, students must grapple with their poor decisions, like hanging out with friends instead of working on a project, or not using the tools at one’s fingertips to contact teachers when they need help. Students also need to manage the freedom of having the world’s best distraction tool at their fingertips throughout the school day, and they have the responsibility to care for that device. They also have the responsibility to navigate appropriate use of their cell phone throughout the school day (and not lose that either.)
Many students come from environments where it was easy to know what was due and when because it was a worksheet, or a reading in a text book, or all of the Math problems on page 125. With the freedom to work on a project that incorporates their own choice & interests comes the hard work of managing deadlines, planning and collaborating with peers.
It has been an amazing experience watching our 9th graders work through this freedom, sometimes succeeding beyond their own expectations and sometimes becoming paralyzed by managing it all.
The young man from the conference has made a huge shift in taking responsibility for his work & we meet regularly to check in on his assignments. It makes me, as his “school mom” very proud but it has also opened my eyes to why giving kids freedom matters. This student has made a huge shift in his mindset that could not have happened otherwise. I can’t help but think about the expansion of “no excuses” schools or urban charter networks that focus on managing & regulating every aspect of students’ lives at school. We are setting our students up for failure if they don’t have a chance to falter & rebound and to navigate the freedoms that life outside of school provides.
 

To start off the year, I decided to make sure that all of my 9th graders understand what the Internet really is and how it works before they get their Internet-ready laptops in a few weeks.

When they came in, they had the first five minutes of class to “draw the Internet.” I got a lot of quizzical looks. “What do you mean?” “You can’t draw the Internet!” I said, “If someone asked you what the Internet looked like, what would you draw?”

A few of the Internet drawings.

A few of the Internet drawings.

There were a variety of concepts including connected dots, a globe, drawings of homepages and Internet logos. A few students drew computers, one drew a phone. A few got their phones out and sketched a browser page on their phone.

I explained that while preparing for the lesson, I had been searching for a diagram of how the Internet works to show them and that all I found were pictures of computers connected to a grey cloud that said, “Internet.” I did find a fairly useful, short video that I showed them instead. Many people, I explained, that use the Internet, don’t really even understand what it is.

After watching the video, I asked them who their ISP was and they named Comcast, Verizon and Clear. We then reviewed the concept of IP addresses and the fact that all computers have them. We also discussed how IP addresses are changed into website names. It was, I admit, a lot to swallow and will require follow up lessons, but it was a crash course nonetheless.

After sharing their drawings with each other and comparing and contrasting them, I had the students count off into groups. They were then tasked with creating a chart that included at least one idea from everyone in the group. On the chart had to be two columns. One that said, “I use the Internet to…” and one that said, “I wish I used the Internet to….” They recorded their thoughts on the chart paper. After about 10 minutes of working, I then had each group walk from table to table to see what the other groups had written. We then debriefed and

Students brainstormed ways they use and ways they wish they used the Internet & then did a gallery walk.

Students brainstormed ways they use and ways they wish they used the Internet & then did a gallery walk.

talked about what we saw. I told them that they are in the position to make the things in their “wish” column a reality. I told them that most people use the internet for all of things the students said they did (social media, pictures, music..), but very few people actually make stuff for the Internet. I told them I want them to be makers and builders. I think they dug the idea.

Another fun part about the activity was walking around and listening to them talk to each other. “I wish I could talk to my computer.” “But you can, you can use Siri!” “Siri sucks. It’s not really talking to you.” I also overheard conversations about what they use the Internet to do and discovering common ground. Overall, I think it was a great start to the year and I look forward to digging deeper into conversations about Digital Citizenship and the rights and responsibilities that coming with going online.

 

 

 

Some ways they use and wish they used the Internet:

Internet Chart 2

Internet chart 1

 

 
Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

I am so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes awake, but it’s a good kind of tired. After weeks of team building, inquiry into our own pedagogical practices, building units, discussing and working out details on school operations from scheduling the first day to student flow through the building, loading up UHaul trucks with furniture and carrying a conference table up three flights of stairs, today was the ultimate truth. The kids arrived.

I couldn’t have wished for a better first day.

There were smiles, nervous looks, timid questions and laughter. We had hiccups (including me being locked out of my classroom for 45 minutes), but it was humbling to see how all of the hard work that each member of our team has done pulled together today. There’s something unique about creating a plan and seeing it through until the end. I’ve never opened a school year with such ownership over the process.

I know that this year will not be perfect. I know that there will be times when we will not always agree on how things are done. I know that we will make mistakes….and learn from them. I also know that we are dedicated to doing great things for kids and that is the underlying force behind everything we do. I have complete confidence and trust in the team that has worked so hard to get to this day.

I am sure that the best is yet to come….

Thanks to the awesome SLA@Beeber folks:

Chris J, Diana, Dave, Luke, Karthik, Matt, Max, Marina and Leroy!

 

 
Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

As I reflected on the events of today, I began to think of my journey as a teacher here in Philadelphia. I began to think of all of the red flags that have gone up over the last ten years before getting to this point. Here is a run-down:

2001

The State takes over the School District of Philadelphia and puts in an appointed board to run the District called the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is made up of appointees chosen mostly by the Governor and some by the Mayor of Philadelphia.

August 2002

I move to Philadelphia immediately after graduating from college. I really want to be a teacher, but am not certified.

2003

I apply to be a “Literacy Intern” with the Philadelphia School District. I am called in November and am placed at an elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia. My role is to support classroom teachers whose classrooms have gone over the legal limit. Basically, rather than hire certified teachers and make class sizes smaller, the District hired teachers with Emergency Certifications to “reduce class size” by pushing in a few hours every day.  I worked in a Kindergarten room with 34 students. The teacher only had my help for about 2 hours a day. My official teaching career in Philadelphia begins.

2004

I complete my student teaching in an unruly 1st grade classroom with a first-year teacher because my principal placed me there and learn quickly the steel and flexibility it takes to be a teacher Philadelphia. I learn that many teachers who were “vocal” in the school had been “written out of the budget” in previous years. That year, at least 4 of my colleague transfer out or quit because of the school administration.

2005

I go to the District office to pick my first official “solo” teaching job and am told that there are no more positions available in the District.  I am offered my choice of school from a list of a schools with a “high teacher turnover rate.” I look quickly at a map and pick a school.

When I arrive at my new school in West Philadelphia, I find out that the school lost 50% of their teachers from the previous year because the school was slated to enter the new (and short-lived) Corrective Action Region. With 3 positions still unfilled 3 days before school starts, I sign up to be the Science Teacher. We start the year with first-year teachers making up about 30% of the staff. During my second year, a first year teacher walks out and never comes back and never officially resigns. Myself and the other specialist teachers take turns covering the class for months.

19??-2009

Our school community inhabits a crumbling building with mold that causes asthma in some staff and a malfunctioning heating system that causes 2nd degree burns on a student who leans back on a hot radiator pipe. We survive a poor school climate with fights breaking out regularly and many unruly classrooms. We are designated an Empowerment School by the District, which means we are held under tighter scrutiny and must implement specific programs.

February 2009

Our school community goes into turmoil when we are told that our building is being demolished and that we are being relocated and have 3 1/2 months to pack up a 100 year old building. Teachers are expected to teach and pack their rooms at the same time.

September 2009 – June 2009

My students are uprooted from their neighborhood and their school to be bused from the area of 58th and Media Streets to 59th Street and Baltimore Ave. They survive being forced into many hours a week of scripted Corrective Reading and Connected Math instruction whether the program works for them or not. Teachers are told that if the students aren’t learning what they are supposed to, it’s because the teacher did not stick to the script.

Students make do as Kindergarteners are forced to use bathrooms built for middle schoolers, as 4 busses running two routes bring 600 students to school and home every day, and as elementary age kids eat lunch in a cafeteria that can seat over 500 students. Students share the building with a “no excuses” charter school and find that their former classmates are not even allowed to say hi to them if they see each other in the hallway.

As the school year progresses, student behavior deteriorates and teachers have little to no support in a huge building with which they are not familiar.

January 23, 2010

The District teachers survive the shady approval of the new PFT contract, which sells the teachers out for Race to the Top money and brings in the era of Renaissance Schools.

January 28, 2010

We are alerted through a District letter in our school mailboxes that our school is on the list of possible Renaissance Schools and could be shut down and reorganized.

March 2010

Our school community barely holds it together when our school’s name appears on the final list of Renaissance Schools. We aren’t even really sure what it means yet. There are a number of models presented to us. We eventually find out that we will be converted to a charter and will all be force transferred and have to re-apply for our positions if we decide to apply to the charter operator.

March-May 2010

Our school’s parents barely survive the convoluted process of forming a School Advisory Committee and the marketing pitches by a variety of charter operators. We do not know who will be running the school, who will be teaching our students or whether the new building would be done in time. We will never get to teach in the new building as it will be turned over to the charter operator for the following school year.

June 2010

My colleagues and I survive a number of meetings with various District staff who have no answers about the future of our jobs or our school community. We begin to pack up the building once again with no idea what the future holds.

Despite interviewing within the District, I make the hard decision to leave the District so I can keep doing what I love– teaching kids with computers. I take a 5 year Charter School Leave of Absence.

September 2010 – June 2013

While I have 3 great years of teaching, I also survive teaching with no contract as an “at-will” employee in a school staffed with a huge percentage of teachers under the age of 30 with very little teaching experience. I watch as my SDP colleagues continue to struggle with the new programs and requirements imposed upon schools and teachers by Superintendent Ackerman. I watch irate parents speak out about school closings. I watch students walk out of their classrooms in protest. I watch as the Renaissance School movement, a child of Washington, D.C.-style reform, turns more and more District schools over to “no excuses” charters. I watch as communities are torn apart by school closings and as some neighborhoods are left without a neighborhood school for their child to attend.  I empathize with their fears and frustrations and I am glued to The Notebook everyday. I watch as Arlene Ackerman is removed by the SRC and walks away with a huge severance package, leaving a huge leadership hole. I watch with hope as William Hite is announced as the new Superintendent. I watch as Ackerman’s plans continue as planned and meetings about school closings are held at schools all over the City.

June 2013

I ecstatically accept a position at the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus and am actually thrilled to come back to the District.

August 15, 2013

I attend the last minute meeting of the SRC, announced only 24 hours ahead of time, during which the SRC suspends entire sections of the Pennsylvania School Code and gives themselves all the power they need to break the union. I listen to community members and teachers tell the SRC that we can’t give our children the bare minimum, that this is a manufactured crisis and anyone who was paying attention knew we would end up here. They say that it’s unconscionable for students and their families and teachers to bare the brunt of the mistakes of others. I watch the SRC sit, stone-faced, until everyone had spoken and then proceed, without fanfare, to pass all but one of the resolutions to suspend parts of the school code. I knew, as I did in the 2010 contract approval, that the decision had already been made and nothing we said or did would stop it.

So why the trip down memory lane?

The point is, teachers, students, their families and entire communities here in Philadelphia have been on a rollercoaster of education reform for over a decade ever since the State took over in 2001 and put in the School Reform Commission. Teachers and community members have spoken out when they’ve seen problems.  We discuss them in the teacher’s lounge or in our classrooms with colleagues or with our families at home. The problems with funding and managing the District have been in plain sight as long as I have worked in it. We are not at this point solely because of students, teachers, parents or community members. We are here because the people entrusted with the financial and educational well-being of Philadelphia’s children dropped the ball in a big way. Now, teachers have been made out to be the villains for sticking up for not what is in their contracts, but language that is written in the sections of the PA School Code that were just suspended. At the same time, students have been promised the bare minimum for their education and, in turn, their futures.

My question is, can the systems in place here in Philadelphia survive another 10 years of this?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I had to write this all down just to get my head straight after all of these years. One thing is for sure, this governing body that State put in place has not done its job. The people of Philadelphia feel helpless when it comes to the education of their children. We have thousands of young professionals who have made the choice to live in the City, to have children and buy homes here. Without a safe and strong public school to send their child to, we will watch these new neighbors flee in droves. Our city depends on strong public neighborhood schools. Let us elect our own school board and take back our City schools.

I recommend you check out the post, The Crisis in Philadelphia Schools…or Not by Chris Angelini for some great ideas and thoughts on this, too.

 
Art Bots at VentureLabs MakerSpace, San Antonio

Art Bots at VentureLabs MakerSpace, San Antonio

As I prepare for the last day of my 5th ISTE adventure (and nurse the sniffles that I blame on 40 degree indoor temperatures and 95 degree outdoor temperatures), I have been reflecting on the dozens of conversations that I have been lucky enough to have on this trip. For me, this ISTE has been about making connections and sharing experiences in a way that has not happened prior. Perhaps I’ve arrived at the “veteran ISTE attendee” status of not even noticing the huge crowds or feeling the need to be at a million parties. Or perhaps, over the years, I have developed more specific interests or deepened relationships to allow for deeper conversation. Whatever it is, I will leave with a renewed sense of practice and purpose a new energy for the challenges ahead.

With all of that said, I did find that there was also a missing element to this year’s conference. I was thrilled by the large number of “maker”-related sessions and conversations, but I was dismayed that ISTE did not highlight the MakerSpace right in downtown San Antonio. I visited the VentureLab MakerSpace right here in downtown San Antonio with some colleagues and was blown away by the vision that Mark Barnett has for bringing these kinds of experiences to kids.

The missing element this week was that link between creativity and technology that Steven Johnson spoke about this morning. “EdTech” should not be solely about building fun toys that “trick” students into learning the same things they were learning before.  To borrow a phrase from Will Richardson, EdTech should not focus only on using tech to teach and learn better than we did before, but rather, it should focus on using tech to teach and learn differently.

If we unleash kids to do real problem solving with real materials and technology and allow them to experiment, fail, and try again (this is the essence of makerspaces), they will <gasp> learn skills such as perseverance, communicating ideas, prototyping, measuring, reading directions, writing with an audience in mind, along with a number of other skills related to using specific tools. This, to me, is what we need more of in EdTech. The students engaging in these kinds of experiences are walking out of high school as mature, independent and employed young adults. I look at the robotics team I spoke to today whose mentors now work for Lockheed Martin or Toyota, but used to be on the team. The high school student I spoke to said he would be working for Toyota soon but can’t wait to return to help mentor the next group of students on the team. I watched 3 teams of high school students in a live cybersecurity competition, scanning computers for viruses and checking and re-checking firewalls. The student I spoke to told me that he would have a job right out of high school doing exactly what he loved to do. 

These students aren’t using technology to do math better or learn vocabulary better, but I am 100% sure that they are using technology to make their world a better place and discovering their passions while gaining applicable skills that will help them transition into a career that they love.

I am not saying that we should stop using technology to teach and learn better, but at this point, we need to consider how technology can help us teach and learn differently. Our students will thank us for it.

 

 
TechCamp Philly 153

Local educators and community members work to create solutions for education in Philly at the TechCamp Philly hackathon.

Just last week I helped organize and attended Edcamp Philly at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the conversations in which I took part was about what works when planning and implementing professional development. It was moderated by Kristen Swanson and Tom Murray. We were split into two teams to create our ideal professional development day. As my team discussed the format of the day, I began to reflect on the hackathons that I have attended and helped organize over the past few months. I began to see a correlation between the way hackathons are organized and how we as educators could learn from the intentional structure for doing and building that hackathons are based on.

First, you ask, what is a “hackathon?” While the name makes them seem nefarious, a hackathon is simply a group of people who come together for a shared purpose with the goal of building or creating a product, idea or solution. Hackathons have their roots in computer programming and coding, though I have attended hackathons where no technology was present, and I have attended hackathons during which teams form and create technological solutions. Hackathons, like telethons, are usually non-stop and last a few days (usually Friday to Sunday). This is not a requirement, however, as some hackathons may last only a day or even a few hours. The main purpose is to bring people together to come up with innovative solutions to every day issues in a short period of time.

This is why we need more professional development to look like hackathons. Some of the biggest criticisms of professional development is that it is often not interactive enough, that it cannot be applied to the classroom, or that there is no “end product” or “deliverable.” If we model our professional development after a hackathon, we have already squashed all three criticisms.

Our team came up with this model as our nearly perfect professional development day:

Morning

Hold edcamp-style workshops where participants self-organize around topics that interest them.

Lunch

Afternoon

Groups form based on the morning’s conversation with the goal of really delving into the topic deeply and fully understanding it in preparation for implementing aspects of the discussion and learning into their classroom that week.

Each person in the group stands up and shares his or her plan for implementing what they have learned and discussed that day with the rest of the group.

Follow up

Teams will reconvene briefly to revisit their goals and plans and share their progress at the next professional development meeting.

——

While not all professional development can be replaced by this format, the idea of self-selecting an area of focus and leaving with a concrete plan that has been shared with our colleagues creates a culture of learning, growth and even accountability to each other.

This format could even be used to come up with solutions to school-wide problems and issues such as bullying, scheduling or parent engagement.

How do you see hacking professional development working in your school?

 

 

discoveryedI am thrilled to have been invited again to Discovery Education’s Beyond the Textbook discussion at Discovery’s offices in Silver Springs, MD. Last year’s event was an inspiring and energizing experience, and I am excited to continue this conversation a year later.

A lot can change in a year. One of the biggest disruptors I see in the text/techbook realm are MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). These courses, which can have thousands of students enrolled in them, are usually free and are built from online resources of all types, including video, screencasts, online articles, PDFs, slide presentations and audio recordings. Professors for these courses create their own units and course content while also sourcing from free content online. This is very similar to the way many of us at last year’s event imagined a digital textbook. We discussed a kind of portal for students and teachers that could be easily customized with free content. MOOCs have taken that concept and expanded them to thousands of students across the world.

While we have come a long way toward that vision of teacher curating their own courses from online resources, I have not seen the textbook industry transform their vision of their product to meet this changing learning ecosystem. A comment on fellow attendee, Frank Noschese’s, blog post on the Techbook refers to a site called Net-Texts. This iOS app essentially allows users to access open courses through their iOS devices. Frank brings up what is, for me, the most important aspect of any re-imagining we do for the traditional textbook. He stresses that textbooks need to be more than just consumption tools. I, too, worry that as textbooks get more ‘flashy’ by going digital, they will just continue the trend of students consuming rather than creating content. I am even more concerned by the quickness with which textbook companies have been regurgitating the same kind of texts and stamping them with “Common Core Ready,” as if that makes them bright, shiny and new.

I learn tons from doing internet searches, watching videos and reading books and articles. Most of the time, the reason I am accessing content is because I am grappling with something and I have hit a wall in my understanding of it. As a learner, I don’t access content in a vacuum. I might need to know how the compressor on my fridge works because everything in it is frozen, so I look up the make and model of my fridge and check out some of the diagrams and troubleshooting tips. Or, I might be wondering if the article I’m reading is giving me a trustworthy portrayal of an event or a concept, so I seek out articles and books on the topic. I might need help with the vector drawing program I am using, so I seek out an online video tutorial. This is how most of us learn once we leave school, there are many students still in school who learn this way outside of school, and a small percentage of students learn this way as part of their every day school experience. Very rarely, when students want to learn something, do they say, “Hey, I bet there’s a great textbook on this somewhere!”

All of the learning experiences I describe above were directly related to a real world problem. The learning led to solving a problem. Learning that is tied to experience and real world application is learning that sticks, and learning that sticks is often non-linear. For that reason, the non-linear aspect of many existing digital books is promising since it allows learners to access content whenever they need it rather than following someone else’s sequencing of content. Think of the many times a teacher you had assigned chapters out of order or skipped some all together. Content should be accessed when it is applicable to something tangible.

The text/techbook of the future should include the above considerations in its design. It should be modular to meet the learner’s needs. It should be tied to experiences and chances to apply learning in real world ways. I imagine a techbook looking like a science notebook or journal. It would be a place where students can take notes, pin articles and videos, record experiments and discussions or lectures, organize data tied to these experiences sketch out ideas in words and pictures, and send and receive emails or other messages. Articles should have highlighting capabilities, and the ‘book’ should have a built-in, editable glossary. All of the content within the ‘book’ should also be shareable with classmates or teachers. Most of this technology already exists in some form. I often find myself using a number of apps or tools to do all of the tasks that I need for working and learning. What would be truly innovative and useful for learners is to create a device or platform in which these functions are all in one place, and in which learning is constructed through content that is closely connected to real world experiences and often created by the learner.

To follow the conversation about the future of the textbook, follow #BeyondTextbooks on Twitter.

You can also share your vision of what a “techbook” could/should be below.

 
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My students at last year’s computer fair waiting for the judging to finish.

I have been blessed to have spent the last 3-4 months working with eleven 7th and 8th graders as they create projects for the annual PA Middle School Computer Fair. We are now only a couple of weeks away from the Fair and I can’t help but reflect on the way my role working with these students differs greatly from my traditional role in the classroom.  I  teach a Computer Fair Elective class twice a cycle, and this class is unlike any other that I teach. There are two reasons for this: 1) the students are working on 5 different projects that they developed on their own and that will conclude with a competition against other middle school students across the city. 2) the students and I work as a team to help realize their vision for their project.

While this may sound simple enough, it breaks the mold of the traditional model of having an objective on the board and everyone mastering said objective by the end of 45 minutes. When these students walk into my classroom, they discuss the next steps they need to work on and talk about who will tackle what during the period. I don’t even turn on the projector and there is no class ‘objective’ on the board. They are able to figure out what they will try to accomplish on their own and they delegate work to each other. My job is to rotate from group to group to check in and act as a consultant, making sure that students have the larger picture in mind and that what they are working on will help them meet their desired target. When they need someone to critique their design or double check their code syntax, or re-read their narrative, they ask for help. If they need to learn something, they may use YouTube or even each other. During the 45 minute period, students are working, discussing and giving each other feedback. There are little to no behavior issues and I rarely have to tell someone to “get started,” or to make sure that they are engaged or have “mastered the material.”

Things did not start this way, however.

At the beginning of the project, students had to reflect on what they worked on the last class and create a manageable goal for the class period. I worked with students to rephrase goals like, “work on project,” to “finish the buttons for the game.” I stressed the importance of choosing a goal that is manageable and attainable in 45 minutes. I also gave the students a chance to talk with each other to agree on what each person would work on before getting started. Sometimes this meant that I helped them designate and define roles for each other. It has been magical to watch how teams are now able to see how the work that each person is doing plays into the larger goal they are working towards.

Things are not always rosy, however.

This kind of learning is messy. Since I am no longer the expert in the room, when we hit a snag, students may be derailed from their goal for the day while they search YouTube for solutions or while they solicit feedback or ideas from their teammates. While traditional behavior problems are nearly non existent, we do run into normal issues that every team, no matter what age, run into. Disagreements abound when students are passionate about what they are working on. Sometimes coming to compromise can take an entire class period.

Experiencing learning in this way has been eye opening and energizing. It has also made it clear to me what real student-centered, hands-on, authentic (though I vowed never to use that word again) learning looks and sounds like.

It is messy, time-consuming and unbelievably rewarding.

 

Right now my students and I are in the middle of a research project. One of the most important things that we are delving into right now is honing our skills in evaluating websites for accuracy and bias. We did the traditional exercise of evaluating the Northwestern Tree Octopus and then I gave them the challenge of evaluating three websites about Ferdinand Magellan. Thanks to my friend and colleague, Gerald Aungst, I was able to provide them with a severely erroneous site about him as part of the challenge. As part of the evaluation process, I provided a template for them to track the evaluation process.

It was a complete failure.

The first class that attempted to use the template struggled. I reflected that the template was not detailed enough to guide the process, so the students were struggling with where to start.

So I redesigned it.

All of my classes had already received the template, so for my remaining classes, I included this slide in my lesson.

Trash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told them that I had failed, that the original template I had designed was not effective. Then, each student crumpled up the old one and put their name on the new one. The new template proved extremely effective and students easily completed it, reaching the conclusions that I hoped they would about each site provided.

So why bother telling this story?

Too often, teachers feel that they need to be perfect, that they can’t falter in front of their students. I find it more effective to be real with my students and let them know that I am also a learner and that I learn from my mistakes. Also, in a climate of ‘no excuses’ and where failure is seen as the worst thing that can happen, it is important to model learning from failure and turning failure into success for our students.

My students didn’t flinch when I told them “I failed.” We put our names on the new paper, moved on and in the end, they were able to identify the site that was phony all by themselves, using the new template as a guide.

 

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